Sunday, March 09, 2008

Welcome to Vandaland

We all love to smash stuff.

I guess it’s the naughty child inside us all that we dare not let out most of the time. Why else do we watch programmes like Brainiac, Top Gear, Robot Wars and Scrapheap Challenge? And don’t tell me you watch ice-skating or Formula 1 without secretly hoping for a heavy fall or a serious crash. Okay, so it may be more of a boy thing than a girl thing but I reckon that we all, to some degree, love seeing stuff being smashed. And smashing things yourself is even more enjoyable. Kids love to build towers from bricks and blocks but they enjoy bashing them down more. And everyone loves watching a controlled explosion bring an old factory chimney or block of flats down.

I’ve always believed that you could make a lot of money by setting up a theme park where people are allowed to simply smash things up with sledgehammers, axes and chainsaws. People would love it! Of course, it would all have to be cleared by Health and Safety. But look at Diggerland. That’s a seriously popular theme park (or parks – there are several of them now) and all that happens there is that people get the chance to drive JCBs. What a fantastic idea! And Health and Safety have cleared it … so perhaps my destructive theme park is possible. But what would I call it? Vandaland? Anarchy Towers? Thump Park?

I reckon it would be a public service. It may just allow people to vent enough of their frustrations that they don’t bother to smash bus stops anymore. Or beat their partner or kids. Or base-jump off Canary Wharf.

Jeremy Clarkson – ever the outspoken voice of British testosterone – says that:

‘The human being, and the human male in particular, is programmed to take risks. Had our ancestors spent their days sitting around in caves, not daring to go outside, we’d still be there now.' (1)

Adding some scientific argument to Clarkson’s case is Dr Peter Marsh of Oxford’s Social Issues Research Centre:

‘When our society becomes too safe, we feel compelled to put risks back into our lives. Consider for a moment bungee jumping. Only in the context of recent shifts in contemporary living could such a mindless activity come to be considered attractive - something which people will pay to do - leaping off bridges and towers to be rescued from the inevitable fate of gravity by an elastic cord! What we have here is a clear example principle of risk homeostasis - in times of objective safety, we act more recklessly - a phenomenon also quite apparent in more humdrum aspects of our daily lives. (…) All of this is based, in my view, on our evolutionary heritage - achieving a comfortable balance between the enervating experience of complete safety and the heart-stopping fear of one risk too many - a level of physiological and psychological arousal which first tempted early man out of his cave to find food, and thus to feed his family and ensure the survival of his genes, but inhibited acts of sheer hubris in front of a sabre-toothed tiger. (…) We need some bad habits, I suggest, in order to retain our subscription to the human race.’ (2)

I believe they both have a valid point. If Health and Safety had their way, we’d all stay indoors covered cocoon-like in bubble-wrap. That’s not what Health and Safety was invented for. Like the Unions, it was invented to stop the working man or woman from being unreasonably put in danger or being overworked by unscrupulous bosses. But they’ve lost the plot. How does that noble origin include stopping homemade cakes from being taken to school because the ingredients aren’t listed? Would the originators of the HSE shudder if they heard that playing conkers had been banned in some schools?

In 2001, 24-year-old PC Kulwant Sidhu was pursuing burglary suspects on a roof when he fell through a skylight and was tragically killed. I, like the majority of people, was deeply saddened by his death. The fact that I have been in similar situations myself as a police officer only made the tragedy more real. But, like most coppers I accept that these things happen. Being a police officer, by definition, is dangerous and unpredictable. In my time, I’ve been shot at, had knives waved at me and been thumped more times than I care to remember. But you perform your duties as best you can in the circumstances. You constantly review and, if necessary, revise your game plan. You perform a rolling risk assessment. And most of the time, it goes your way. I survived my service. Kulwant, sadly, did not. Maybe he misjudged things. Maybe he stumbled or tripped. Maybe he was misled by what he saw. Maybe he didn’t have all the facts. Whatever the reason, he accepted the risk that goes with the uniform and he chose to go onto that roof. He was a brave and dedicated young man.

However, the Health and Safety Executive did not accept that it was a rare, tragic and unavoidable accident (despite the fact the last time it had happened was 1952). To them, Kulwant’s death was ‘proof that the Met, and its commissioner in 2000, Lord Condon, had failed, criminally, to discharge their duty to protect officers from the risk of falling from roofs.’ (3)

And in an extraordinary move (and at a cost of approximately £3 million of tax-payers’ money – that’s enough to pay for 70 constables on the street for a year), decided to prosecute the Metropolitan Police Service. Kulwant’s family did not ask the HSE to take the action.

Thankfully, common sense prevailed. If the police had lost the case, they were looking at the very real possibility of ordering all officers not to climb onto any area over 6ft off the ground without ropes, ladders and climbing gear. As the then Assistant Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe (now Chief Constable, Merseyside Police) put it, “It would have been a veritable burglars' charter, a victory for criminals and would have encouraged suspects to use roofs to escape.” And I wonder how the public would have reacted to that?

The same issues surround police chases. I fully expect to see a ban in the next few years despite the fact that it means that every villain will know that all they have to do to get away is employ a good driver and a fast car. It’s madness.

Life is for living. And risk-taking is part of living – whether it’s for thrills or for the greater safety of the public. If all risk and thrill is removed, is it any wonder that people will get pent up, frustrated and stressed? If all risk is removed, if all of our natural outlets for stress relief disappear, where will that stress assert itself? Bad behaviour is where. Or in dangerous sports.

Oh, if only Vandaland was open!


(1) ‘They’re trying to lower the pulse of real life’ Sunday Times article 4th March 2001.
(2) ‘In praise of bad habits’, a lecture to the Institute for Cultural Research, London, November 17th 2001
(3) As reported in ‘We fall off horses. Do they want us to use Shetland Ponies?’ Daily Telegraph 28th June 2003.


Me said...

PC Andrew Stephen Le Comte of teh West Midlands Police (WMP) died on the 4th February 1984, aged 21. He was a gifted and dedicated probationer constable who worked in Erdington, Birmingham. He was killed in a fall while searching for suspects on a shop roof at night following a spate of shop breaks. A memorial is in place a an award is made annually to the probationer constables who has made the most progress.
Nevertheless a waste of a fine life.

Anonymous said...

I was on duty the night he died, very sad. There had been a spate of breakins of shops on Erdington High Street and a certain taste was left in the air that he was under pressure, as a probationer, to prove his suitability to become a PC by getting a result. What a waste.